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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 12

Caltrain eyes providing 'initial' high-speed-rail service
Take: Quite frankly, this type of approach is exactly how HSR service is done in other countries. In major cities, high speed lines are mixed with existing rail lines as the routes approach major stations. Caltrain's effort to electrify its route is not only the right things to do on a cost basis, but it's also the wave of the future.


China set to slow its trains as South Korea speeds up rail rollout
Due to the recent backlash, speeds are being reduced in the world's most populous country and prices are going down. China's move will allow other countries, namely South Korea, to catch up.

Take: The world's fastest trains should not be priced so high to the point that the Average Joe or Jane is forced to ride cramped trains that the government takes little care of.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Random thoughts

  1. South Bend builds a transit center downtown but Amtrak decides to stay at its current location because the carrier couldn't reach an agreement with the city. Mind you, the original owner--South Shore--left the building in 1992! Since South Shore's station is now at the airport, perhaps another operator like First Group could use the South Street Station for conventional and Regional Chicago-Cleveland service as well as long-distance service between Chicago and Florida via Washington.
  2. When it was operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Pere Marquette called Chicago's now-defunct Grand Central Station home. If the 176-mile route is transferred to another operator based on PRIIA competition guidelines, the new operator should move the train out of Union Station and into LaSalle Street Station. As a matter of fact, the same thing should also happen to the Blue Water route because both routes unlike the Wolverines are supported by Michigan, and thus, are not part of the national Amtrak system.
  3. The Hamburg-Cologne Express has been delayed until the summer due to slot conflicts with Keolis. Anyway, I hope that the people over at Locomore are able to pull off their venture. Maybe, by being successful, we will have more PPP opportunities whether the host railroads and True Believers like it or not.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 11

Florida's funds get redistributed
This past Monday, the Obama Administration reallocated the $2.4 billion that Florida would have used for its HSR route had Rick Scott not killed it. The Northeast Corridor, previously ineligible for stimulus money, was the big winner by getting almost $800 million. Another big winner was the Wolverine route, which got just under $200 million to upgrade its service in the state of Michigan. California also won big money as it is one step closer to providing true high speed service. The big loser not named Florida was Wisconsin, which wanted $150 million for upgrades to Hiawatha service--the same Hiawatha route that was supposed to be extended before Walker killed it four months ago.

Take: My comments on Walker's just deserts can be found here. My home state didn't get much--just $4 million for an environmental analysis for the missing link between Raleigh and Richmond. I JUST WANT THE ROUTE TO BE REBUILT ALREADY! After all, based on Amtrak's own research, the Carolinian, which is parallel of the planned SEHSR route, had the worst on-time performance among all routes in 2010. That is due to the bottlenecked A-Line between Petersburg and Rocky Mount.

NM's about face on buying route from BNSF
New Mexico governor Susana Martinez recetnly canceled the purchase of a route known as the Raton Pass. She cited that old favorite "cost" as well as blaming the Class I railroad for not "formally closing the deal" that was conducted by her predecessor, Bill Richardson, who wanted to use the rarely used line to extend commuter services.

Take: This is shaping up as one huge missed opportunity. Not only should the state have bought the line, but it should be planning a future Albuquerque-Denver intercity route--even one that would allow the state to exercise PRIIA guidelines to select a different operator. There has been some discussion about Amtrak either buying the line or rerouting the Southwest Chief via Amarillo since BNSF no longer uses the Raton Pass Route between Albuquerque and Hutchinson, KS. So far, Amtrak is content with its current route and shows no interest in buying the line. The aforementioned link lets it be known that small towns along the affected portion don't even have access to Greyhound, so it'd be a big loss if the line is abandoned. 

Regional/shortline railroad holding companies like Rail America, Iowa Pacific or Genesee & Wyoming can and should step up to operate the line and provide passenger service via an independent operator.

Texas is officially in the rail game
The Lone Star State got $15 million from Florida's returned funds. That money will go to planning an Express route between Dallas and Houston. Less than a week after getting the money, there is an uproar over the routing.

Take: Given that state leaders are arguing over whether the trains should serve the Dallas-Fort Worth airport or the downtowns of the two cities means that Texas is finally serious about intercity rail. Personally, the Dallas-Houston Texas Eagle segment should have never been eliminated 16 years ago. Furthermore, Texas officials should be trying to build up not only that Dallas-Houston route as an Emerging HSR corridor, but they should also be trying to do the same thing for the current segments that serve San Antonio via Dallas and Houston. Be as it may, the Texas Triangle, combined with efforts from the private Triangle Railroad Holding Company, is a much better choice than the T-Bone option that was passed over for stimulus funding twice last year.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Oregon's Next Step

Out west, an alternative known as the Oregon Electric Line is being promoted by Beaver State officials. Under this plan, the Cascades would shift its Portland-Eugene routing westward to rails currently operated by the Portland & Western, and frequencies would triple from two to six between the two cities. However, advocacy group AORTA strongly disagrees with the alignment and wants ORDOT to keep the Cascades on the Union Pacific route.

The state wants to move the train onto the Class III railroad because the former Southern Pacific route is near capacity. It is worth pointing out that Union Pacific is studying ways to double track the 124-mile line. Meanwhile, AORTA contends that the move is unnecessary, lets the state DOT know that the Capitols in CA have over a 90% on time performance rate, correctly points out that there is no signaling on the P&W route, and that Oregon City, which opened its station in 2004, would lose Cascades service (and perhaps only be available for afternoon rush hour travelers via the Coast Starlight) while Salem would be forced to build a new station.

In the March issue of Trains Magazine, freelance writer Scott Lothes said that upgrades on either route would require "substantial investment," which, according to state officials in Salem, would be billions of dollars. The options to deal with this are many, ranging from the aforementioned two to letting P&W run the Cascades, to splitting up the Portland-Eugene roundtrips so that up to three of them utilize the shortline route. I don't know whether Oregon is a frequent participant in the economic incentives game, but, regardless, I suggest this for the state: Give some incentives to the Portland & Western and its parent company to upgrade the tracks and signalize the the line. Maybe, tapping the railroad or some other independent operator to run standalone Portland-Eugene service would engender some "friendly competition." Also, the OE route could once again live up to its name as "Oregon Electric" as it becomes upgraded to Express HSR while the improved UP line would remain in place as Regional HSR.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Station Issues Part 3: Amtrak vs Other Operators

Given the potential for there to be three operators between Chicago and St. Louis, station conflicts will arise. At the north end, Union Station is an overcrowded mess. Meanwhile at the other end, Amtrak has partial ownership of Gateway Station (the city of St. Louis is the other owner). Eight years ago when the Missouri legislature was pondering handing its trains over to Herzog, Amtrak threatened to keep Missouri-based trains out of Kansas City Union Station and a temporary St. Louis trailer, and it would have refused to recognize the MO trains as connections to Amtrak trains  (go down to the eighth posting [the author was Gene Poon]). Eventually, the Show Me State caved, and all seems to be well between the state and Amtrak now.

Until Florida Governor Rick Scott scuttled his state’s HSR project over two months ago, Amtrak and SNCF were on the same team bidding to operate the route. Now that FL is out of the high speed sweepstakes, all bets are off concerning the two carriers’ cooperation. So, it would not surprise me if upon operation of the two proposed Chicago-St. Louis Express routes, Amtrak decided to keep SNCF and the third operator out of Chicago Union and St. Louis Gateway Stations. When it comes to the Windy City, that would not be such a big deal because 1) SNCF has already proposed O'Hare Airport as a stop and 2) there are other options for intercity service. Even though those are my preference for other operators, a joint MWHSR/Siemens study has proposed its own alternatives for HSR stations in that city which are infinitely better than what MWHSR proposed early last year. In St. Louis, the French operator has already stated a preference for that city's Union Station. Not only can STLUS host SNCF routes, but it can host the other Chicago Express route and a future St. Louis-Kansas City Express route. While it would take some work, restoring the facility for train use should be no problem at all.

Meanwhile out in the Pacific Northwest, there's the possibility that Oregon could reroute the Cascades off of the  Union Pacific route and onto the Oregon Electric route between Portland and Eugene or that another operator could use the latter line and compete against the Cascades. The real sticking point would be Portland Union Station. Fortunately, that city owns the facility so it controls who can use Union Station.